With Dead Space 3's release, the hot-button topic of microtransactions in AAA titles has been resurfaced again by gamers. Yes, paying an extra dollar for a significant in-game bonus has stirred up more anger among gamers about the current state of their favorite industry (right when you thought nothing else could piss 'em off, too). I guess I can see why...people can now pay for what are essentially the new form of cheat codes. It's obviously a cash from the publishers who do it, but I seriously don't care. And I seriously don't see why other people do.
To understand my point, we should probably talk about the origin of microtransaction-based games; social networks. Games such as Mafia Wars and Farmville are completely free to play, and have a focus on social interaction with your friends who play the game. You can play them and be completely free of the worry of having to pay a dime to be successful, but there's a cost. In these games, you may have an energy bar that lets you perform X amount of actions when full, and once it depletes you must wait an hour or so before it fully regenerates. In others, you must wait for certain tasks to be completed, and if you wait too long to come back and collect on those tasks you may be punished. In order to offset those drawbacks, the game would offer players a chance to buy an item with real money that would make it easier for them to play the game and speed up their progress. The items are never expensive...usually costing around a dollar each...but if you have a game that, say, 50 million people play (I'm guessing here) and 5 million of them (10%) pay a dollar every day for a new item, you have some serious profit. That's why companies like the much-loathed Zynga are so successful, they have a host of these games that have a large userbase, and even though the majority of players don't pay, the amount of people that do really adds up.
That Windmill will take 24 hours to build, but if you pay $1 it will build INSTANTLY!
Now, while gamers hated games such as Farmville (because, really, what don't gamers hate?) for being obvious cash-grabs (although they probably didn't even bother with playing them), they didn't have as much of an effect on the industry until recently. EA, the big bad evil devil satan publisher of the video game world, has suddenly included microtransactions in many of their new games, and has announced that they intend to implement them into more, sparking an outcry among gamers.
My question is this: why? Why do they care?
Mass Effect 3's multiplayer has a microtransaction system that lets players pay for booster packs that include new armor, characters, and weapons, but they could just earn them from playing the multiplayer enough.
My thing with microtransactions is that they're completely optional and have no direct effect on the game if you decide not to use them. You want to look around for tungsten in Dead Space 3 for free? Go ahead! You'd prefer to grind up credits in Mass Effect 3? Sure! Go for it! Do it! The game is still there in its entirety, completely available to everyone who purchases it. Honestly. You can still craft the weapons and upgrades you need in Dead Space 3 without paying for extra tungsten, and you can still unlock every character and every gun in Mass Effect 3's multiplayer without paying a dime for a booster pack.
These microtransactions are, essentially, glorified cheat codes. Remember cheat codes? Those things that were really popular up until this generation? Did anybody else notice that, even in single-player games, cheat codes seem to have fallen off the map? Game Informer used to have a "CHEATS" section, but that was removed a few years back because there were simply no cheats to publish. G4 (may it rest in peace) used to have an entire television program dedicated to cheat codes called, you guessed it, Cheat! Now, one could argue that the rise of multiplayer made cheat codes obsolete (they would destroy game balance entirely), but even in most single-player games and campaigns they just up and disappeared.
Now, let me ask you a question. If a game had cheat codes, were you a frequent user of them? If not, then what's bothering you about microtransactions? Just like you opted out of cheat codes, you're opting out of paying for bonuses. You still have your full-featured game. You can still play it and beat it however many times you want. You can still sell it second-hand (unless you bought it digitally). Really, these microtransactions have no effect on your game if you don't choose to use them.
If you were a frequent user of cheat codes, I still don't see the complaints of the prospects of maybe having to pay for them now. They've been largely absent from games over the past generation, and that doesn't seem to have stopped anyone from playing. They're back now in their cheating glory, but, guess what, now you'll have to pay some money to cheat.
And before you tell me that I'm an EA apologist and blah, blah, blah, I'm not. I'm just a rational thinker here. I absolutely hate what they did to Bioware and the ending of Mass Effect 3 and I don't like that they have a reactive business model, rather than a proactive one. I would like to see EA dissolve and release all of the developers under their umbrella, but until that happens we're going to have to put up with their money-grabbing.
Some of you will claim that the eventual result of EA's use of microtransactions will be full-fledged, AAA $60 games will have systems like those of Mafia Wars and Farmville. We'll only be able to play 2 levels of a game in 24 hours, and in order to play more we'll have to buy an energy pack for $.99.
Except that won't happen. As soulless as EA is, it's aware that gamers will react extremely negatively to a $60 that employed such a model and would sell a miniscule number of copies. The microtransactions they currently employ are small little boosts that effect your game, and your game only. What's the issue?
And, let's be honest, I'm willing to bet that a lot of people who cry out against the microtransactions have used them at least once or twice. That's why EA will keep using them, gamers are purchasing them. Really, it's nobody's fault but ours that EA will keep this up. I admit, I have paid a grand total of $5 into Mass Effect 3's microtransaction system because I wanted to see if I could get a rare character without having to play 3 matches first. Does my getting a rare character hurt other players? No, the multiplayer is co-op, so, in fact, it almost helps my teammates if I get a rare character.
So, yeah, I don't see what the big deal is. Until a game like World of Warcraft offers legendary items for money, microtransactions can exist and I still won't give a single sh*t.